Burning the light of education in Kashmir

Now faced with a civil war in their midst with families pitched against families again after a cycle of 26 years, Kashmiris watch in horrified silence as 25 schools are gutted in the last few weeks

I am reminded of this story of  Cecil Earle Tyndale-Biscoe, a 19th-century, British missionary and educationist working in Kashmir. His Wikipedia entry writes:

'In the late 19th century, Kashmir was a princely state made up of a Muslim majority ruled by a Maharaja and his Hindu minority. The Maharaja often utilized the services of British and European experts, though Kashmir was an independent kingdom. Seeing the squalid conditions and caste system as a serious problem, Tyndale-Biscoe aimed to use his own Christian values and western civic ideals to improve Kashmiri society.

Tyndale-Biscoe's educational philosophy was one in which conspicuous intellect, or "cleverness", was valued less than the acquisition of more profound attributes and abilities. His schooling placed emphasis on physical activities – boxing, boating, football – which would stimulate senses of courage, masculinity, and physical fitness. The pupils were also engaged in civic duties, such as street-cleaning, and in helping deal with flooding and cholera. Enforcing participation in team sports and activities in a highly socially stratified culture had significance beyond the replication of Tyndale-Biscoe's English public school educational experience.

By his later years, Tyndale-Biscoe had founded six schools with 1,800 students. In 1912 he received the Kaisar-I-Hind Medal, and an additional bar in 1929.' 

Morning Assembly at Mission School, 1950s

The story which is common lore goes like this. Biscoe was himself involved in the construction of the first modest school houses in Kashmir. Legend says that he was not allowed to get bricks to the designated place one day which he had piled on a tonga (horse-driven cart) common in South Asia. The next day he arrived with the sack of bricks on a horse. The locals created a scene because they had heard about this 'missionary' and were not sure of what he wanted to achieve. The next day he walked with a sack of bricks on his bare back. The locals by now realized the man was determined and quietly watched him get to work as he started the foundations of a school room. 

The Mission School, Fateh Kadal, 1890

I am proud of this story but prouder of the lore in the women of my family about Miss Mallinson. The Mallinson Girls Higher Secondary School was founded in 1912 by Miss Violet B. Fitze as the Girls' Mission High School. Its name was later changed to Mallinson Girls' School in honor of Miss Mallinson, a missionary who served in the school from 1922-1961. Renowned as the state's most prestigious educational institution, the Mallinson Girls Srinagar was established at Fateh Kadal in 1912 at the time when there was no concept of education among the people of the valley. 

Miss Mallinson, sometime in 1970s

My aunts told stories of how Miss Mallinson would go and visit the local families and encourage the parents to send their girls to school. The conservative and superstitious Kashmiris were reluctant but Miss Mallinson's fortitude and determination prevailed after she reached a compromise with the families. The girls and young women would attend school if and only if a purdah covered shikhara (boats used on the waterways and lakes of Kashmir) picked and dropped them off. 

She didn't stop at that and any girl playing truant found Miss Mallinson at her door in the evenings, with ''nun-chai'' (salt-tea) in hand and the famous Kashmiri tsechewour (baked croissant, my rudimentary translation) talking delicately to the village headman and the mohalla (community) elders about the philosophy of education and its importance for the girls. 

Mallinson Higher Secondary School, Sheikh Bagh, 2016

There is a certain stand alone pride among pass outs of the first Mission Schools like Biscoe, Mallinson, Burnhall Boys School and Presentation Convent, recognizing the pioneering efforts of the missionaries in imparting education to the masses and trending the graph of literacy in the State of Jammu and Kashmir upwards and rising with girls surpassing boys in the Matriculation Results and enrollment data.

When Malala Yousufzai's story first hit the news stands and social networking websites in 2012, I remember contempt and disgust among families across Kashmir which took pride in the education of their daughters. Families from Kargil, Leh, Dras, Kishtwar, Rajouri, Doda, Poonch, Uri, Kupwara, Srinagar, Budgam, Anantnag, and other newly formed districts in J&K expressed utter horror at this despicable act. Editorials, letters to the editors, school essays, Parent-Teacher-Meets, and the usual social networking sites were abuzz with the deplorable act and the expose of the face of the Taliban. Slowly and gradually, Kashmiris started to make the connection to the tehreek movement, the early 90s militant diktats and the interesting divide between the strike calendars that the Hurriyat issued every summer and their own children getting a stable education outside the conflict-torn Valley. 

16 December 2014 was the final light bulb for Kashmiris when 7 gunmen affiliated to the Tehrek-i-Taliban (TTP) conducted an attack on an Army Public School in Peshawar. Militants shooting schoolchildren in cold blood before confirming whether their fathers were in the Army or not; one lone class 9 survivor from the entire 9th grade because he did not go to school - all of this is not fathomable to the silent, moderate Kashmiri who vacillates between ''India is bad'', ''Indian dogs go back'' and goes rabid when National Highway NH-1 the sole link to Udhampur and Pathankot and India beyond is not opened up in time by the Border Roads Organisation (BRO) due to snow and landslides and the everyday supplies brought in. 

Now faced with a civil war in their midst with families pitched against families, brothers against brothers again after a cycle of 26 years, Kashmiris watch in horrified and cynical silence as 25 schools are gutted in the last few weeks and reports of banks and vehicles being targeted coming in. A school is a sacred place for Kashmiris, be it the maktabs, madrasas and peeths before the European Missionaries structured the whole education system or the government run schools or private and public schools or even the Army Goodwill Schools under Operation Sadhbhavana. They resented the CRPF and other paramilitary troopers occupying schools in the 90s and didn't mind them taking over the huge cinema houses until most of them were gutted or converted to hotels or hospitals, depending. They will never tolerate their schools being gutted daily especially those that cater to the lower rung of society, the financially impoverished. Of course, they will never come out on the streets protesting this because of the ever present threat of the ''unidentified gunman'' and intimidation to family members by thugs. But just like the underground movement of the Arabs after the failed Arab Spring, their resentment will increase and when it will really matter be it a controlled voting day or the elusive plebiscite, they will speak.

Govt. School burnt by arsonists in Chatawan, Shopian, Kashmir, 2016

Whatever the Pakistan establishment is planning to do next in collaboration with their proxies in Kashmir, they better not target the civilian population. Whatever media reports may show, there is a silent majority being kept away from the intifada factory of the Press Enclave at Srinagar, or some choose to stay away and pull on the famous Kashmiri resilience in the face of bad days. After all, ''paan kemus chu kharaan?'' - who dislikes one's own self!  

Arshia Malik is a Srinagar-based writer and social commentator with focus on women issues and conflict in Kashmir. She makes her living as a school teacher and is an avid collector of literature. She is currently writing a book about her life as a female in Kashmiri Muslim society

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